This is the first installment of Next One Up, an occasional summer feature series taking a look at some of the biggest up-and-coming stars in the Long Beach sports world. All photos by Art O’Neill and John Napalan.
Old Town Road is ruling the air waves, there’s a new Spider-Man movie in theaters, and the third season of Stranger Things is dominating online conversation. But make no mistake: this is the summer of Peyton Watson.
The lanky 6’6” Long Beach Poly junior-to-be has been putting on an absolute show this summer, and is racking up scholarship offers nearly every time he takes the court.
“He can really do it all,” said Poly coach Shelton Diggs. “He can bring the ball up and distribute, he can score, he’s a great defender, a great rebounder, a great shotblocker. One of my focuses with him is I don’t want to pigeonhole him, because he can do so much.”
Watson has a unique challenge in front of him. Last year he was one of just three non-seniors on varsity for the Jackrabbits, the talented youngster in a historic program. There is a weight to that history–Poly has won 20 CIF Southern Section championships (one more than the school’s football team), with at least one in every decade dating back to the 1920s. Last winter they had 14 alums playing college ball or professionally, and they’re adding another four next year.
This year, over the span of one summer, Watson has to flip the switch from promising sophomore to veteran leader of a program with high expectations every year.
“Everything is earned at Poly, nothing’s given,” said Watson. “It’s a hard-working program, that’s why so many guys have success after they leave here. If you buy in completely, you’re coming out a champion.”
Diggs knows that his team has a chance to be special this year, but that only part of that burden rests on Watson’s on-court production. The rest of it will depend on his leadership and his ability to raise the level of his teammates, almost all of whom are new to the varsity level. There have been games this year where Watson posted a gaudy stat line only for Poly to lose by a possession or two, something the junior and his coach are hoping to avoid this year.
“He’s a really good leader, I’ve seen that this summer,” said Diggs. “He’s getting the other guys caught up to the level we need them to be at. He’s making that transition from young guy to leader.”
Part of that role comes naturally for Watson, since he’s involved in so much of the action on the court. There’s also the fact that many of the newcomers to varsity are his friends (and his younger brother), so it’s been easy for him to show them the ropes as an experienced varsity player.
“Sometimes I can get a little frustrated, but I was in the same spot they were last year and I wasn’t the best,” he said. “Coach Shell entrusted me with this role and I’m embracing it–we have a young, energetic core and I’m excited to play with them. A lot of them are my friends already.”
Watson’s fellow junior, Solomon Jones, looks like a great complement for Poly. Jones is a big man who’s developing a much more natural feel offensively this summer, and has been training with Long Beach State and Celtics legend Glenn McDonald.
Watson’s offseason has been focused on getting stronger, and he’s finishing through contact much more often this summer. He’s drawn a boatload of mid-major offers and has been getting more looks from Pac-12 schools as well. There’s not doubt the future is bright–Clint Parks, who’s trained both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Kuzma, dubbed Watson “the best long-term prospect in the West.”
In other words–this might be the summer of Peyton Watson. But it probably won’t be the last summer that sees him dominating headlines.